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TIMELINE: FDA Repeatedly Fails to Warn Consumers About Mercury in Seafood

TIMELINE: FDA Repeatedly Fails to Warn Consumers About Mercury in Seafood

Wednesday, June 13, 2007

1950s: Mass poisoning in Minamata, Japan from fish contaminated with mercury-laden wastewater provides first evidence that the fetal brain is harmed by mercury.

1970s: Another mass poisoning, this one in Iraq from mercury contamination in grain, results in deaths and permanent impacts to exposed children.

1990s: A string of studies are published showing permanent brain damage among about 1000 children in the Faroe Islands exposed to mercury in the womb from their mother's consumption of contaminated seafood.

JANUARY 2001: FDA issues first advisory about mercury in seafood for women of childbearing age, saying it is safe for women to eat 12 ounces of a variety of any type of seafood except four that should be completely avoided — shark, swordfish, king mackerel, and tilefish. Agency includes no warnings on canned tuna and many other fish high in mercury.

APRIL 2001: EWG publishes new analysis showing that 25% of all women would be exposed to unsafe levels of mercury if they followed FDA's advice. In resulting press account, FDA officials tell the New York Times that they couldn't give women better information because their focus group research told them that women would stop eating fish altogether if presented with all the facts about mercury.

APRIL 2001: EWG files Freedom of Information Act request to get the focus group transcripts in which, according to FDA, women indicated they did not want detailed information on the dangers of mercury in seafood.

MARCH 2002: EWG publishes analysis of focus group transcripts which finds that FDA had essentially lied to the New York Times, and that women want clear information about the hazards of mercury in fish and will continue to eat fish low in mercury. EWG also finds that an FDA official told focus groups that canned tuna contains enough mercury to harm the developing brain of a baby in the womb. EWG's findings are featured in a front-page story in the NY Times food section. The FDA immediately announces plans to convene their expert advisory panel to assess the agency's seafood advisory.

July 2002: The advisory panel meets, finds that the FDA's advice is inadequate, and sends them back to the drawing board to create a meaningful advisory based upon sound science and adequate fish testing. EWG made a presentation to this panel.

DECEMBER 11, 2003: After implementing a token fish testing program, FDA releases a new draft advisory containing no substantial changes from the initial version. At the same time, the advisory panel meets again, and once again warns the FDA that the advisory again has the same problems as the previous version, finding that the FDA's advice is inadequate, particularly with regard to the troubling levels of mercury in canned tuna, and sending them back to the drawing board to create a meaningful advisory based upon sound science and adequate fish testing.

DECEMBER 22, 2003: EWG files a Data Quality Act (DQA) challenge that will require the FDA to set scientifically-sound public health policies. The FDA has 60 days from date of receipt to respond to our challenge.

FEBRUARY 19, 2004: FDA sends EWG a letter saying that they cannot meet the February 20 deadline for responding to our DQA challenge. The letter advises that FDA will respond by April 20th.

MARCH 2004: FDA releases a purportedly "new" advisory. The underlying advice remains substantially the same as the first advisory issued three years ago. An EWG analysis shows that 99 percent of all babies in the womb would exceed a safe dose of mercury if their mothers followed FDA's advice and ate a can of albacore tuna each week.

APRIL 14, 2004: FDA sends EWG a second delay notice, saying that they cannot meet the April 20 deadline for responding to our DQA challenge. The letter advises that FDA will respond by June 20th.

JUNE 16, 2004: FDA sends EWG a third delay notice, saying that they cannot meet the June 20 deadline for responding to our DQA challenge. The letter advises that FDA will respond by August 20th.

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